Is rail too little, too late?

With auto sales, population and tourism numbers projected to continue to rise rapidly, how effective will rail actually be in reducing congestion on Honolulu roads?

Alex Kekauoha

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) trumpets a reduction in traffic congestion on Honolulu’s crowded streets and clogged freeways as the primary benefit to the multi-billion dollar rail project. But, while the project is still years away from completion, statistics on the contributing factors show that congestion will only get worse in the mean time.

The auto industry is booming across the state; car sales and registrations continue to rise rapidly. In 2014, new auto registrations throughout Hawaii increased 11 percent in just the first quarter. Although registrations have stayed flat during the first quarter of 2015, they are projected to rise nearly four percent by the end of the year. And research from the National Automotive Dealers Association found that the auto business remains a multi-billion dollar industry in Hawaii. In 2013 alone, 78 new car and truck dealerships opened across the state.

Part of these gains can be attributed to Hawaii’s growing population. A report from Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism says the state’s population has steadily increased every year since 1980. Hawaii’s overall resident population is expected to increase from 1,363,621 in 2010 to 1,708,900 in 2040, an average growth rate of 0.8 percent per year. Oahu, of course, will retain the largest population, currently at 976,000 and projected to rise to 1,008,000 by 2040.

Add to that the impact tourism will have on driving. This year, Oahu has had at least 400,000 visitors each month, many of them renting cars. Nationwide, car rental businesses are seeing significant gains. The American car rental industry generated a record $26.1 billion in revenue last year, sparked—in part—by growing tourism, which is back to pre-recession levels in Hawaii.

HART is making its best effort to assure Oahu residents that rail will alleviate traffic congestion. Rail’s official website says it will, “eliminate an estimated 40,000 car trips from our congested streets and highways.” But does the project take into serious consideration the island’s continued growth? Increases in population, tourism, and vehicles will continue to make HART’s goal of traffic reduction a hard one to reach. If all rail does is take some cars off the road to create room for new ones, its net effect on traffic will be nothing.